McCarthy’s Hail Mary: Strip Ukraine aid and finally pass Pentagon spending bill

Separating the relatively small amount of Ukraine funding is yet another reversal for McCarthy. Over the weekend, the speaker opted keep the money in the bill after previously floating the possibility.

But Ukraine aid has become politically contentious in the GOP conference and is opposed by many lawmakers on McCarthy’s right flank. The Pentagon bill may not have the votes to pass the House, but stripping the Ukraine money may flip enough lawmakers to clear it.

The procedural machinations are striking given the wide bipartisan votes in favor of assisting Kyiv just hours before GOP leaders decided to remove the money.

“Trumpism is alive and well here, because you’re trying to overturn another vote,” said Rules Committee ranking Democrat Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, referencing House Republicans’ support for overturning former President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election.

Lawmakers on Wednesday rejected 104-330 an amendment to remove the $300 million, which allows the Pentagon to train Ukrainian soldiers and purchase weapons for Kyiv. A second proposal to bar security assistance to Ukraine failed in an even wider 93-339 vote.

Despite the bipartisan victory in support of aiding Kyiv, nearly half of House Republicans voted to revoke Ukraine funding. Right wing opposition to further Ukraine assistance creates a conundrum for McCarthy, who is aiming to pass a conservative defense bill opposed by Democrats. He can afford just a few Republican defectors.

Republicans downplayed the maneuver to again strip the funding in a Rules Committee meeting late Wednesday. Committee Chair Tom Cole (R-Okla.) argued the move would allow opponents of either measure — Ukraine aid or the defense bill — to voice their opinions on each independently.

“The entire House, whether they’re for it or against it … are going to have the opportunity to make their opinion known,” Cole said. “I don’t see that as a bad thing.”

Another Republican, Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, noted, “We need that separate vote.”

“The outcome’s going to be the same, we’re just going to have one extra vote,” Massie said.

Left unsaid by Republicans was that the defense bill faces a tight vote in the House, and that any amount of Ukraine money is enough for some GOP lawmakers to oppose it and likely sink the Pentagon measure. Hardliners blocked the bill twice on the floor before finally allowing debate to commence this week.

The $300 million allocation is part of a Pentagon program created during the Obama administration in the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. It is separate from the $24 billion President Joe Biden requested in August to support Ukraine as it continues its counteroffensive against Russia.

Ukraine aid has also become a major sticking point in the shutdown fight on Capitol Hill. The Senate has unveiled a stopgap that includes $6 billion in military and economic support for Ukraine, a fraction of Biden’s request.

McCarthy has indicated a short-term government funding bill that contains Ukraine aid is a non-starter for House Republicans if the bill doesn’t include other GOP-friendly provisions, such as border security measures.

Still, the House GOP maneuvering to pass the defense bill won’t prevent a shutdown this weekend. The Pentagon bill stands no chance in the Senate. And there’s no deal in sight with just three days to find a way to keep the lights on.

“To say that this place is a clown show under Republican control is doing a disservice to actual clowns,” McGovern said of the situation in the House.

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